On a warm afternoon five years ago, Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox was walking to her constituency surgery when she was ambushed by far-right extremist Thomas Mair. He shot and then stabbed the MP fifteen times while shouting phrases like ‘this is for Britain.’ She died four hours later at Leeds General Infirmary.
The anniversary evokes strange emotions. It sometimes feels like we gloss over the fact that this was a sitting MP—one of the few hundred political leaders of our country—murdered by a far-right terrorist for her beliefs. It’s only on anniversaries like today that the event is even mentioned, and often only in passing.
But Jo Cox’s murder was not unique: it was one of countless terrorist attacks in a far-right movement that poses a growing threat. We’ve all seen the headlines. Anders Breivik murdering 77 people, most of them children, at a Norwegian Labour Party summer camp in 2011. White supremacist Dylan Roof killing nine people in a Black community church in Charleston, South Carolina. Darren Osbourne driving a van into a crowd outside Finsbury Park Mosque, leaving one dead and 10 more injured. The Islamophobic mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 that left 51 people dead.
At least 216 people have been killed since 2010 in far-right terror attacks in Europe and North America. Experts warn of the threat worsening, with one calling Covid a ‘perfect storm’ for radicalisation, particularly among young people, in a year during which 17 children, some as young as 14, were arrested on terrorism charges. Far-right extremism now makes up the largest number of referrals to Prevent with a serious risk of radicalisation, at 43% of all referred cases. That itself is a significant increase on the data from just 2019. The number of far-right prisoners convicted for terror offences in Great Britain rose by a third last year.
Perhaps most worryingly, this problem isn’t confined to the civilian population. Last week, neo-nazi and former army driver Dean Morrice was convicted on terrorism offences after manuals and enough materials to make 1.3kg of gunpowder and 680kg of thermite were found in his possession. Images emerged in 2019 showing British paratroopers using pictures of then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for target practice. That same year, it has since been revealed, 14 soldiers were referred to Prevent – 11 for potential far-right concerns.
In April, a serving Met police officer, Benjamin Hannam, was convicted for being part of neo-nazi terrorist organisation National Action, as experts warned many more far-right extremists could be serving in the police. In some ways it’s not surprising that neo-nazi groups idolise the police and the army – far-right obsession with these powerful state institutions in the UK dates back as far as Oswald Mosley and the National Front.
If you want to see the potential consequences of this kind of concentration in the state apparatus, look to Germany. Last year, German police officers were found to have shared the addresses of refugees to far-right groups and aided in the creation of a lengthy ‘death list’ of enemies of the far-right, including journalists, politicians, and activists. One of the country’s elite military units contained so many neo-nazis and potential terrorists that it had to be partially disbanded last summer. Another case involved an army lieutenant who pretended to be a Syrian refugee in order to commit terrorist offences that would then be blamed on refugees. In August 2020 alone, the German police force uncovered 40 cases of right-wing extremism within its ranks.
The fact that this type of extremism is on the rise cuts to the most important point of all – terrorists are not born, they are made. No-one chooses one day to bomb a synagogue in a vacuum. No mass shooting targeting ethnic minorities or murder of left-wing politicians comes without context. The very fact far-right terrorism rates are increasing tells you something environmental is driving that change.
That isn’t to say that extremist, terrorist right is everywhere. Often, pretending to have more power than they do is a way to legitimise these terrorists’ belief that they fight for a silent majority. But the political landscape in the UK has increasingly made previously far-right opinions seem more palatable – even normal.
This is a country in which fans booing footballers taking a knee against racism is tacitly accepted by governing politicians – politicians who have spent years actively building a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. It’s a country whose Prime Minister has made a litany of racist and Islamophobic comments, the latter of which was followed by a 375 percent increase in incidents of anti-Muslim hatred. Those attitudes are, of course, compounded by a vicious tabloid press.
But this pattern isn’t just national – it’s global. Figures like Trump, Orbán, and Bolsonaro platform far-right opinions, and even as some are voted out, their influence lingers. It’s no surprise that Paul Greengrass, who directed a film about the Breivik terror attacks in Norway, has warned that Breivik’s ‘intellectual worldview’ has ‘migrated’ closer to the political centre.
It’s important to note that our reaction to terrorism is itself affected by these forces. The already intense over-policing of ethnic minorities is only worsened under the guise of ‘counter-terrorism’, particularly for Muslims and people of Arab and South Asian descent – a problem which reinforces the acceptability of far-right feeling among our state actors.
In the worst cases, nominally ‘anti-terror’ schemes are used to police progressive causes: for example, teachers have been told to monitor pupils who express interest in Palestine solidarity activism. The Prevent scheme has long been condemned as racist and Islamophobic. Major changes to the counter-terror system are well overdue.
So, on the anniversary of one of the most horrific acts of far-right violence in decades, the question isn’t just what we’re doing to police fascists themselves. Instead, we must ask ourselves why our society is creating so many fascists in the first place. Only by interrogating the reasons so many are finding their ways to a politics of violent hatred can we begin to stem the tide of the far-right. That would truly be a worthwhile way to commemorate Jo Cox and all of their victims.